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Journey to the Sky

The bus just kept on climbing for at least ten hours. Up and up and up and up. The twisitng, winding road followed a beautiful river which smiled at us the whole way. I was heading to SeDa, the largest Tao monk training school in the world with my girlfriend. We were heading to a different world.

It was night when we arrived. Cold.

It was January and we were 4km up in the air. The average temperature at that time of year is -10 degrees Celsius but it was closer to -20. There was ice covering the road as we stepped of. Some city folk slipped already. In typical fashion, we hadn’t booked a hotel. It’s more adventurous that way. A couple of people greeted us off the bus, took us to a hotel. It was pretty shabby but we were tired and hungry. We’d stay there one night and find something better the next day when we’d take another bus up to the main place we were heading for, a few more miles down the road from this town. Good food, good sleep.

We left early the next morning and took our bags with us. We were staying for a couple of nights at the top of the plateau, again, crossing our fingers that there was a place for us to stay. This was a different world.

The monk village was a stunning array of tiny red houses climbing up the mountain in a way which remind me somehow of Rio de Janeiro. It seemed that about 90% of the people living here were monks which the rest of the population performing services for them such as drivers, cooks and shop keepers. And beggars. Lots of beggars. Perfect practice for the monks.

We spent the first day wandering around the town. We were as interesting to them as they were to us and everywhere we went there was mutual wonder upon our faces. We ate some of the worst food I have tasted in China. Greasy, dirty. I lusted for meat. The toilet of our hotel dangled perilously off our the edge of a mountain. There was no smoking in the village at all. My vices were forced into the sunlight. We smoked secret cigarettes in dark corners of the evening.

The main event.

A small procession of people, some of them carrying boxes or the kind of large blue bags Chinese people often use for travelling which remind me of Ikea bags. A funeral procession. We follow the sombre march further up the mountain. The bags and boxes are opened, corpses unwrapped and placed naked on the ground. Three people have died this week. Prayers. Chanting. The ringing of bells. All as you would expect from a Buddhist funeral. Then the knives come out.

Two men begin hacking at the corpses like a butcher with beef. Suddenly a gasp from the onlookers. Hundreds of vultures approach, wait for the men to finish. The Sky Burial is about to commence.

The vultures are ugly and impatient and get in close. The men vacate the area and suddenly the vultures swarm like ants on jam. I can scarcely believe my eyes as the the birds tear the flesh from the corpses like zombies in a horror movie. An eyeball is plucked out in horrid fashion, guts ripped and snatched. The birds scramble for a space, push and shove and steal. I’m entranced, barely aware of the other people around me as I absorb the evisceration of human flesh. I’ve not seen a corpse in real life until this moment and I’m suddenly faced with brutal nature. This body is meat. Life goes on.

Life is a transition from birth to death.

We are food for the Earth.

I retreat down the mountain and light up a cigarette. I feel death’s grip. I see my own skeleton.

Read the next chapter, The Meditation master of Shang Ri La

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Published by RJHughes

I am from the UK and spent 5+ years abroad. Read about my adventures here:

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